A less contentious affair than last month’s Summit , this second of three, “In-Depth Explorations of D.C. Theatre,” led by Washington Post critic Peter Marks and hosted by Arena Stage was by no means a merely light and trivial evening. Whereas the focus of the first discussion, with local artistic directors, was the troubled American theatre and inequities in season selection, this event looked at the difficult life of the actor. The tone did remain friendly throughout, and the five actors in the panel drew plenty of warm laughter from the audience, despite the fairly heavy subject matter.
“If last time we talked about the people who run the theatres, tonight we’re gonna talk about the people who make the theatre happen,” said Marks, before introducing the actors: Tom Story, primarily associated with Shakespeare and Studio Theatres; Nova Y. Payton, frequently seen at Signature and soon at Arena Stage in Smokey Joe’s Cafe; Kimberly Gilbert, company member at Woolly Mammoth and Taffety Punk; Richard Thomas, the veteran New York actor, currently in Camp David at Arena Stage and Helen Carey, a New York veteran as well, familiar to DC audiences from performances at Arena and Shakespeare Theatre (and who was unfortunately delayed and arrived late).
“I’m sort of fascinated by the life of actor, a stage actor particularly,” said Marks. “Once you’ve picked it, you spend the rest of your life waiting to be picked.”
The cheerfully self-deprecating Thomas answered Marks’ opening question about what it is about the actors that allows them to do what they do by saying, simply, “No skills.”
“This life that we choose to be in… it’s not a ladder-climbing life, it’s a roller coaster,” Gilbert said, to which, later, Thomas added, saying, “As you said, it’s not a ladder situation – it’s Chutes and Ladders.”
“I take responsibility for the choice,” said Story, “and I don’t expect people to feel sorry for me because I decided that this was… the only thing that would make me happy.”
All the actors agreed that the unpredictability of getting work was something they simply lived with, and they all continued as actors simply because they loved it. “I want to still do what I love to do,” Payton said, speaking of continuing her stage work even after giving birth to her son.
Marks, perhaps, revealed his intentions for this edition of the Summit, in response to the actors’ cheerfulness and passion.
“When you’re talking, it reminds me, you know – the person reviewing the theatre can make a living (if you’re working at the Washington Post)… the person who runs the theatre makes a very good living running the theatre… but the actors…” said Marks, before citing a recent piece written by choreographer/director Annie B. Parson, “This Performance Subsidized by Sweat Equity“. Parson talks about Here Lies Love, a show she choreographed in New York, which sold out at $100 a ticket. Marks quoted from her piece at length to illustrate his point:
“The actors who were in this show were earning ‘as low as $386 a week during rehearsals and $544 a week during performances. This is BEFORE taxes, agent fees and Union fees. Dutifully and beautifully performing eight shows a week (plus pickup rehearsals, video shoots and recordings), these stars join the working poor of New York City—all for love of the historical and political content of the show.'” (At those rates, the actors would indeed at least partially qualify for a proposed low-income tax credit for the working poor in New York City.)
“‘Their well-trained, low-paid sweat was indeed part of the equity of the show,’” Marks continued, reading from the essay, “‘And let me be clear, Here Lies Love is not alone in paying performers at this abysmal level; it is a common practice done in many off-Broadway theaters. A few years ago, [Parson’s] husband, Paul Lazar, performed in Classic Stage Company’s production of Three Sisters (Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard were his cast-mates)—he netted $409.35 per week… The value of the arts in society has been written about and studied ad nauseam—from purple prose to hard science. Assuming that you, reader, agree that the arts are a necessity, it might come as a surprise to know that most of the mega-talented performers you see onstage earn less than your babysitter.’”
This drew some noises of surprise from the audience, and a sincere “thank you for bringing that up” from Thomas, who added, “people don’t know, they just don’t know.”
It’s worth noting a criticism made later, on Twitter, at this point; Adi Stein tweeted, “An hour in #TheSummit and the “smallest” theatre discussed is Signature and the lowest income mentioned is $400 a week. I’d love either,” within a longer series of responses questioning why no non-Equity performers were represented on the panel. It may be said that Stein, in this way, pointed out that the situation is truly troubling, when non-Equity actors would love to receive the wages which top-of-their-field stars receive – and which puts them in a class with “the working poor.”
– This event was live-streamed, and can be viewed in its entirety online. –
“I’m trying to understand how one rationalizes that as a talented person,” said Marks to the actors, of the economic conditions. “Is it that… the psychic rewards are so high for you, that [being underpaid] doesn’t matter?”
“It’s a combination” of a lot of factors, said Story, including “psychic rewards,” the hope that work will lead to more work, and attraction to particular plays. Payton added that she set other goals for her career, such as getting a chance to work at a theater she hasn’t worked at before.
“If you’re going into this acting thing… it’s so weird to call it a business, because if you’re going into it, you’re clearly not money-driven, and if you are then you’re deluded,” said Gilbert. “When you take a role for 400 bucks a week… we have no other choice.”
“You could stop doing it,” said Marks.
“The reason that I do it is that this is all, this is all,” replied Gilbert. “I was born this way.”
Story responded to that, adding seriously, “It’s almost like being gay… it’s immutable… you can’t not do it.”
“It’s the most heartbreaking thing, when you have to turn down roles” due to being unable to afford it, said Gilbert.
(Around this time, Carey arrived to the stage.)
“Do you all feel as if you’re part of a Washington repertory company,” asked Marks, referring to what Payton said. “Does that create that feeling that I’m making progress too, that you’re known to a number of theatres?”
“That company thing… doesn’t exist,” said Story. “It doesn’t totally exist at Shakespeare [Theatre]… it’s not the same thing that it used to be.”
“There’s places that I think everybody frequents… but there’s no twelve-month contract… it is all independent contractor work,” Gilbert said.
For her part, Carey described the theatre scene as “one big play pen,” and continued, “The ‘company’ comes when audience members come up… and say ‘oh I love watching this and that.’ And this town is full of avid theatre goers, and that’s the connection I make, is that people love theatre here.”
“Just listening to the rounds of applause in the audience when you mention particular performances is exactly what you’re all talking about,” said Thomas, referencing the audience response to, for instance, Marks praising Payton for her work in Dreamgirls at various points in the discussion.
Thomas went on to say of D.C. that it is “probably my favorite city to play outside of my hometown… I’ve found the audiences highly intelligent and avid and very… very ready. …The community loves their actors,” he said.
“They just don’t pay their actors!” responded Marks.
Gilbert discussed how she has always needed to hold down two or three other jobs, including one as a barista at Tryst Coffeehouse, to pay her bills, to which Marks asked, “Is there a shame factor… to have this impressive onstage thing… and then say… ‘check please?’”
Gilbert described how at the coffee shop she served at, the patrons would sit on low couches, and when they would look up and recognize her, they would be perplexed that someone they’d seen onstage was serving them.
“And they feel shame for being served,” said Gilbert, by the artist who had performed for them.
Switching gears, Marks asked, “do you still all have anxiety going on a stage? …Is it different for you now than when you started out?”
“It’s healthy anticipation,” said Carey, “if you don’t feel you’ve got the reins as you’re waiting in the wings, god help you – because, as my mother said long ago when I was very young… ‘Helen, no one’s coming to watch you be nervous.’”
“I don’t want to disappoint myself,” said Story. “That is my terror, that I’m not going to live up to my potential.”
Marks went on to ask the actors, “do you read reviews?”
“You don’t write [the reviews] for us,” noted Story.
“I think of it almost as talking behind your back,” agreed Marks. “And I don’t mean that in… a nasty snarky way.”
The panel went on to discuss how, in this day and age, everyone gets reviewed – even plumbers – and anyone sitting in their basement can post reviews online.
At the end of the evening, the actors took some questions from the audience, including one about the expansion of the D.C. theatre scene:
“I moved to Washington from New York 35 years ago,” said the audience member. “Theater was slim pickins… now it’s just great, Virginia, Maryland, D.C., big, small, every single kind of theatre… it sounds like all of you have perspective on this… what happened that has given this incredible birth to this wonderful range of theatre in Washington D.C.?”
“I think this has always been a really, really juicy audience town,” responded Carey. “I think once upon a time… for years and years Washington was a ‘political town’ – we won’t start on that – but it’s so much more now, it’s grown and grown and grown… The bar has been raised all across Washington, and if you want something edgy, if you want something classical, if you want a new play, if you want a play not being spoken, you know, you can find just about everything that suits your taste in this city.”
“The dynamic, whether anybody wants to admit it or not… in terms of theatre in this country… the dynamic has shifted,” said Gilbert. “It’s no longer just ‘you can be a professional actor if you’re living in L.A. or New York.’ It’s gone. It’s a myth. Communities like this, that have grown over the past decade and a half… where people said, no, I’m gonna stay here, and I’m going to create the work that I want to do… I think that’s what happened… this cohesive choice… that a lot of people just stayed and wanted to make sure that it was about the creation of art.”
Marks said, “there’s a peculiar alchemy in Washington.” He identified how a number of distinct companies grew up together, each with their own distinct personality, and said that this dynamic “nurtured a greater theatergoing habit.”
“There’s more worry about making money as it’s grown,” continued Marks. “This worry about money, partially occasioned by the creation of these monuments to theatre all across town… it really sucks a lot of money out of rest of the ecosystem.”
For the final questions, the divide between professional and community theatre was brought up. An audience member raised the matter of what she termed “reverse snobbery” in the community theatre, where the performers there will criticize the professional actors, saying “they don’t do it for the love of it the way we do.”
“I wish the two worlds would… intersect more,” the woman said.
Story replied, “The snobbery thing irritates me on all levels… there’s not much difference in all of it… I don’t think anyone is in the position to be a snob because no one is getting rich and amazing things happen in small places too.”
“In terms of the monetary thing,” said Gilbert, “some gigs you get paid really well, some gigs you don’t get paid really well” “there’s no difference, there really is no difference.”
Marks concluded the evening by emphasizing the recurring point. “I just want to end it by saying that… the truth of the matter is the five of you give back so much more value than you get from us.”
On April 28th, playwrights and directors will join Peter Marks for the third and final Summit. The event is sold out.
The scheduled panelists are: Robert O’Hara, Ari Roth, Jacqueline E. Lawton, David Muse, Rachel Grossman, and